I always tell people that my mom has been a great cook for as long as I can remember, but if I’m being honest, her cooking only entered my life when I was in the fourth grade or so. I still remember the birthday cake she made me for my eleventh birthday. Before that, I’d only ever had store-bought birthday cakes with elaborate (but tasteless) frosting decorations. My mom’s version was the first cake I remember enjoying — a dream of a chocolate cake, layered with light and fluffy, hand whipped 7-minute frosting.
Looking back, that first homemade birthday cake seems pretty symbolic to me. It was made in the first summer after my family had relocated from the Philippines to the Netherlands. For reasons that were unclear to me at the time, my mom had quit her leadership role at a consulting firm in the lively and bustling Manila to move us out to The Hague, a beautiful but incredibly sleepy city in the Netherlands.
I didn’t mind the move so much. In the Hague, my parents gave me much more independence than they ever had in Manila. I’ve already written about how I would bike around the city by myself, but my favorite part was that I now went home to my mom and her homemade meals instead instead of an empty house. In the Philippines, my mom often worked late and I ate meals cooked by my nanny, often times just by myself. My mom made wonderful renditions of Filipino dishes that my previous nanny’s cooking could not match.
But even though I was young, I could see that the move had a different effect on my mom. She would sometimes snap at me and my siblings for asking her to do things like buy things for school projects, or she’d cry while doing household chores like mopping the floor or folding our laundry. She’d never do it in front of me and my siblings, of course — only when she thought she was alone, like that time I’d accidentally walked into my parents’ room after coming home early from school.
At the time I never understood why — I was much too young to have analyzed the situation, much less have a candid conversation with my mother about why she was crying. But now, as a 26-year-old who’s spent the last few years struggling to find the right career path, it’s only just beginning to dawn on me the extent of my mother’s sacrifices. I mean, don’t get me wrong — I’ve never been a stranger to my mom’s successful career. According to family friends and my mom’s old co-workers, my mom’s name is still spoken with reverence at her old consulting company. And I know that it’s what paid for my private school education from lower school to university, what enabled me to see the places that I’ve seen, and allowed us to live in the beautiful houses that we have.
But honestly, until I started working, I didn’t realize how friggin’ hard it was to get all the things my mother used to have in her career. Things like an extremely generous salary at a job that you love, in a position where your colleagues admired and respected you. I mean, it took me years to just figure out what career path I wanted to go on! And even though I’m on that career track now, it came at a price: a couple years of depression, time wasted at other jobs, a title demotion and an initial salary cut. So yeah, I now understand that to get to where my mother was at the peak of her career, she must have worked her butt off. And then, at the height of it, she walked away. Why?
Because as much as she loved her job, she loved her children more. And she wanted to give us the opportunity to live abroad and get the best education she could give us, which at the time was in Europe and the United States. She knew that moving to those places meant sacrificing her high-powered, prestigious job in Manila and walking away all its ritz to become a household mom who did our chores. And even though she knew it was going to be hard, she did it because she knew it was the best thing for me and my siblings.
And although I’ll still never begin to understand how lonely and angry those first few years must have been for her, there are no words can express how grateful I am for what she did. Her decision allowed us children to travel the world, receive the best education we could get, and grow up comfortably without any wants or debts.
So happy birthday, mom. This is the best cake that I’ve ever made, and it’s for you. For being such a wonderful role model, and for teaching me about all the important things in life through your past and present words and actions.
Some baker's notes:
- No cake flour in the pantry? No problem. I adapted this cake from one of my favorite bloggers, The Vanilla Bean Blog, and the original recipe calls for 1 3/4 cup all purpose flour. Feel free to use those measurements instead!
- The cake batter will seem like it's too liquidy and that something's gone wrong, but don't panic — it's just how it is. Trust the recipe!
- Can't find crème fraîche? You can also substitute the crème fraîche with plain ol' sour cream. It'll be just as tasty, but not quite as fancy.
- The frosting is very, very forgiving. It's best to work with the frosting when it's still warm, as its easy to spread and create beautiful, smooth textures on the cake. The frosting will quickly cool as it spreads. If you find that the frosting has solidified and has the consistency of cold butter, pop it in the microwave for 5-10 second intervals until it warms up again.
(a.k.a. The Best Chocolate Cake EVER)
- 2 cups cake flour
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 3/4 cups natural unsweetened cocoa powder
- 2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature and gently whisked
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 cup freshly brewed, strong hot coffee
- 12 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
- 1/2 cup crème fraîche, at room temperature
- 1/4 cup half-and-half, at room temperature
- Preheat the oven to 350 (F). Prepare two 8 inch round cake pans by spraying generously with cooking spray and lining the bottom of each pan with parchment paper circles. Spray the top of each parchment circle and set aside.
- In the bowl of a freestanding electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine 2 cups cake flour, 2 cups granulated sugar, 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, 2 teaspoons baking soda, 1 teaspoon baking powder, and 1 teaspoon salt. Mix on low speed until throughly combined.
- In a separate medium bowl, combine 1 cup buttermilk, 1/2 cup oil, 2 eggs, and 1 tablespoon vanilla. Whisk together gently until just combined.
- With the mixer on its lowest speed, slowly add the wet ingredients (from the 3rd step) to the dry ingredients (from the 2nd step). Add 1 cup hot coffee. Continue stirring on low speed until just combined, before stopping the mixer and using a rubber spatula to scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl and mix into the batter. The batter will seem really liquidy, but again, this is normal.
- Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake in the preheated oven for 35 to 40 minutes, until a skewer inserted into the center of each cake comes out with a few crumbs and the tops of each cake bounce with a spongelike texture when poked gently with your finger. When the cakes are ready, remove from the oven and let the cakes cool in the pans on a wire rack for 30 minutes, before turning out to cool. Remove parchment paper and allow the cakes to cool completely before frosting.
- Combine 12 ounces bittersweet chocolate, 1/2 cup unsalted butter and 2 tablespoons light corn syrup in a double boiler or a heatproof bowl sitting on top of a pan with simmering water. Melt completely, using a heatproof rubber spatula to stir occasionally to release heat and fully combine the ingredients.
- Once the chocolate and butter have fully melted, remove from heat. Whisk the mixture gently to release more heat, before whisking in 1/2 cup crème fraîche and 1/4 cup half-and-half. Continue whisking until both the crème fraîche and half-and-half are fully integrated and the frosting is a uniform dark chocolate color. Set the frosting aside for 15 minutes to cool some more, giving the frosting a gentle whisk or two every 5 minutes to allow heat to escape. After 15 minutes, use the frosting. At first, it will seem too liquidy, but the frosting will quickly cool as it is spread throughout the cake. Work quickly to frost the cake before the frosting cools completely — it will harden as it cools.